CHANGES MADE BY AESCHYLUS

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 31-3.

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WORKING conditions and materials, such as the outdoor setting, the use of masks, the presence of the chorus with its dancing and singing, were all inherited by Aeschylus from the more primitive drama. The main characters and events of his plot were supplied by the legend. The single actor had already been "invented" by Thespis. One of the first things Aeschylus did was to introduce a second actor. This innovation, made thirty years after Thespis had taken the first step, was a momentous event. Somewhat later, Sophocles brought a third actor on the stage, and Aeschylus quickly adopted the new style. Of course dummies were used, as in the scene where Prometheus was nailed to the rock; and in one or two later tragedies it seems as if a fourth actor would have been required. In general, however, after the early work of Sophocles Greek tragedy was limited to the three-actor play.

The physical setting of such a drama as Prometheus was probably somewhat more elaborate than that of any primitive play. Certain characters arrive on the stage in a wagon drawn by "a winged beast." Chariots had already become theatrical property, and other mechanical devices soon made their appearance. The custom rose for each entering personage by way of introduction to state distinctly his name, place of residence, and his office. Frequently also there was given, through the words of the prologue or one of the actors, a description of the scene of the play, with the landscape features. Such description, direct or indirect, is of course one of the stock theatrical devices. "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!" was only one of Shakespeare's ways of localizing his scene.

The Aeschylean chorus, composed originally of the singers of the dithyramb, was continuously present. In the time of Thespis and the early years of Aeschylus it was by far the most important portion of the play. The extant tragedies of Aeschylus, however, show a gradual but definite change. In The Suppliants, an early work, more than half of the lines are given to the chorus, and the greater part of the dialogue is between a single actor and the chorus, while the second actor has but a slight part. In the succeeding plays, however, the choral passages are much reduced in length, while the dialogue is prolonged and made far more important. In The Suppliants the fifty maidens form the chorus, but after a time Aeschylus reduced the number to twelve; and from then on the chorus takes its place as a secondary though still necessary part of tragedy, composed of appropriate characters, such as a council of elders, courtiers in the palace of Xerxes, lawgivers, or sympathetic expositors of the story. Occasionally they appear as prophetic attendants to whom a happier future is visible.

Whatever changes he made, Aeschylus always remained elemental and simple. He delighted in picturesque narrative and phrases such as "starry-kirtled night." He speaks of the wrath of God as "trampling with heavy foot upon the nation of Persia." He put more color and variety into the costumes of the chorus and actors, and elaborated the dance movements. For his time he was a specialist in novelties, such as torch-light processions and choral effects of a striking character. He used different rhythms in depicting varying moods, suddenly transforming the expectations of the audience from delight into anxiety and grief. Sometimes his characters indulge in talk which at the moment seems trivial, but turns at a phrase into tragic intensity, mystery, or dread. He was a master of the dramatic situation and of climax, having an eye for what was theatrical and spectacular in the best sense. "The world," writes Haigh, "has seldom seen a more splendid combination of the arts of poetry, music, dancing and stage management than was produced under the guidance of his genius."

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